The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The glowing page

Here’s an optical effect well-known to summertime readers—raise your hand if you recognize it:

You’re walking the streets with your nose in a book. Maybe you’re coming home from school, or maybe you’ve just been out wandering. It’s a beautiful sun-drenched day, but you experience it only at the margins—your eyes are focused on the bright white pages, and you’re reading steadily, flip flip flip, just as steadily as you’re walking. You are in the zone, somehow navigating busy sidewalks and complicated intersections using only your peripheral vision and, I don’t know, your medulla oblongata or something.

Then, you get home—you’re still reading—and you cross the threshold. Suddenly, the page under your nose is glowing. There’s a weird color-shift that happens, sort of a buzzing red/green effect. It’s almost as if the page has soaked up the sunlight and is now shooting it back at you here inside the house. It’s slightly painful; you squint and keep reading. It’s best not to look up, because if you do, you will realize that the whole house is color-shifted, too. Your eyes are confused and overloaded, because they’ve adjusted themselves to the white-hot square of the book.

Every time I experience this (which is often, and includes five minutes ago) it triggers a little burst of nostalgia. It makes me think of all the summers I’ve spent reading and all the places I’ve wandered back to: my childhood home in Michigan, my old dorm room, my first apartment in San Francisco. I can very distinctly remember being nine and eighteen and twenty-seven, always squinting and waiting for my eyes to re-calibrate, but never, of course, actually putting the book down. Never even considering it.


Early in my relationship with Patty, I walked from my office on Parnassus over to her house in Cole Valley one day, reading as I walked. As I rounded the corner down her street, she stepped off the bus, saw me reading and walking, and burst out laughing. So I kind of thought I was the only one!

I can’t really call to mind the effect you’re talking about; we should run some experiments. Some food for thought though: assume the albedo of paper is 60%, and the albedo of black ink on paper is 10%. Assume also that the illuminance of your living room is about 50 lux and the illuminance of bright daylight is 100K lux. Then the brightness of black ink in daylight is roughly 300x brighter than the brightness of white paper in your living room.

I love everything about this comment.

Also, your observation that black ink in daylight is brighter than white paper in a living room really jibes w/ my experience of the effect (which I don’t think I described very well up above). It’s not actually that the page is glowing… it’s just like, everything about the image is hot and buzzy and off-kilter.

Now in my sixties, I don’t dare read while walking — but I don’t miss it much, either. And I’m traveling lighter as well; my new smartphone came with the Kobo edition of “A Tale of Two Cities,” the first grown-up novel that I ever read (and I haven’t read it since, thinking as little of Dickens as I do and, re-reading his dramatization of the French Revolution, very much continue to do). The need to read when not otherwise engaged has dissipated a bit; I’m much more willing that I used to be to see what the world out there has on offer.

I do remember, though, being blinded when coming indoors with a book. it took ‘ever so long,’ as the Victorians put it, to figure out why.

Wonderful comment, RJ!

+1 for getting your head out of your books. But sometimes you just have to read… 🙂

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